Saturday 27 June 2020

With leadership like this. . .

For most of my teaching career, when most young people were reasonably biddable, behaved themselves and did as they were told unless given psoitive reasons not to, if a class were unruly it was usually because the teacher was not very capable. If a whole school had a discipline problem it was usually because the head was weak

Much the same appears to apply to countries. 

 New Zealanders follow their government's instructions because their prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has led them well: acted quickly, treated them as adults,  given full and honest explanations, and followed her own rules. Their deaths attributed to the virus are  I believe still under 30, in spite of a recent new outbreak

Of course, New Zealand has only a small population. 

Germany has a population bigger than ours.  They have so far experienced  8 955 death, or 108 per million population.  Their Chancellor, Angela  Merkel,is reported to have led then with honesty and integrity.

The UK's record to date is a total of 43 232 deaths attributable to coronavirus, or 650 per million, six times greater than Germany.

The pictures which have appeared in the papers and on TV over the past two days, of thousands ignoring the physical distancing rules on of crowded beaches and at unauthorised musical concerts are frightening, especially to someone in my age group (more of that later.)

In response  Prime Minister Johnson has called on us "not to take liberties" and "to be responsible."

This from the man who set the example by attending a crowded rugby match  a the beginning of the outbreak, not only shook hands with people likely to have been in contact with the virus, but openly boasted about it, and gives enthusiastic support to his chief advisor Dominic Cummings who ignored the official government guidance by, among other things, going on a sixty-mile drive to a beauty spot with the excuse that he deeded to test his eyesight.

A letter in today's Guardian  suggests we describe  failure to respect government guidance as "the Cummings effect."  We call vacuum cleaners Hoovers and ballpoint pens Biros so why not? 

It is a truism that good leadership is by example.  

"Do as I say, not as I do," is rarely if ever effective.

If there is a further serious coronavirus outbreak the government  will doubtless try to blame it on the failure of the people to observed their rules, and will probably get support from the sycophantic press.  But part of the responsibility will remain with their inept leadership.

There is a very real sense that most of the people on the crowded beaches, at the unauthorised concerts , and celebrating Liverpool's success in the football league,are behaving rationally according to Tory mores:  put self- interest first and "there is no such thing as society.  ( "There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families, " to give the complete quote)

"Why shouldn't I put the interests of myself and my family first? If Cummings can do it why not me?"  is a logical  position to take.

Most of them will be under 40, probably much younger.  If they catch the virus they are very unlikely to suffer much and have only a very small chance of dying from it.  Many who do catch it will be unaware they have it - asymptomatic in the jargon.

But that doesn't  mean that they can't pass it on to those of us in society who are far more vulnerable.

A graphic in the July edition of Prospect Magazine shows that if some one of my generation, 80+, catches it we have a 500 times greater chance of dying from it than someone under 40.

So I for one will be avoiding crowds and continuing as far as possible with self-isolation, and would appreciate it if the less vulnerable would follow the guidance scrupulously.

Thursday 18 June 2020

Britain's reputation takes another nosedive.

What is it with the Conservative Party?  They are the ones forever boasting about our past and present greatness, that this or that is "the best in the world and the envy of the world" when it patently isn't, and some  "world class" other is actually third class, if that. (eg our managing of the coronavirus pandemic)

The one thing we have which probably is the best in the world and the envy of the world is the BBC, yet the Conservatives are constantly sniping at it and threatening cuts in its funding.  The wonderful World Service in particular is renowned as an impartial source of reliable news.

Yesterday the government announced that it is to "merge" the Department for International Development  (DfID) with the Foreign Office.  In other words the Foreign Office is to take it over and, instead of its primary function being the reduction world poverty, it will become primarily an instrument for promoting our foreign policy.

In the 23 years of its independent existence  DfID has developed an enviable reputation for effectiveness. 

Andrew Mitchell, a  former Conservative DfID Secretary  has commented:

"All the brilliant people  who have given DfID its reputation around the world. . .will leave.  We will at a stroke have collapsed the pre-eminent  and most respected engine  of international development in the world."

Both comments are probably a little bit over the top, but they point in the likely  direction.

They certainly do not point in the direction of a genuinely  Global Britain.

Tuesday 16 June 2020

Deja vu all over again.

Thankfully the weekend's demonstrations evolved to the advantage of the Black Lives Matter and anti-racist causes and against the pro status quo far right. 

 In the previous post I expressed fears that there might be more statue toppling*, which  would  give the government the excuse to switch the debate from slavery and racism to law and order.   

In the event it was the other way round.  The BLM supporters behaved very sensibly, called off many of their demonstrations and where they were held they passed off peacefully  and without anything that could be described as vandalism. It was the far-right who behaved thuggishly, causing several violent  incidents  and arrests. Thus  any attempt to switch the emphasis to law and order places the right-wing  on the back foot.

The sports commentator who used the duplication in the title was held to ridicule (probably by Private Eye) but it sums up Prime Minister Johnson's decision to set up a Commission to examine the problems of discrimination in British Society.

We don't need another commission of enquiry: what we do need is action of the ones we've already had.  

A tech savvy junior civil servant  could put together  in a couple of hours a spreadsheet of the recommendations of the enquiries and investigations of the past 20 years** and allocate them to the appropriate  government department for action.  

A committed cabinet would  look at the list first and impose a time 
limit for the implementation of each recommendation.

Instead Mr Johnson's Commission has all the signs of being simply  there to kick the issue into the long grass.

That he has appointed a convener who, far from being impartial,  is already on record  for describing previous enquiries as fostering a "culture of grievance" and questioning the existence of institutional racism, suggests that the findings of the commission will have little credibility for those aggrieved.

Perhaps the most effective place to start the action would be with the defining and dismantling of the Home Office's "hostile environment."  

It shames us all.

*  Not least for poor old Baden-Powell, who founded, more or less by accident, the largest voluntary youth movement in the world, taken up at their own volition by  umpteen countries.  The movement provided a structure for "the good life" for millions of young people.  In my time as a Scout we  promised to obey the Scout Law, the fourth of which read:

 "A scout is a friend to all and and brother to every other Scout, no matter to what country, class or creed the other may belong." 

It sounds a bit archaic nowadays, perhaps, but is quite the opposite of racist.

** Today's Guardian helpfully outlines the recommendations of the most recent here.

Saturday 13 June 2020

Caunterproductive Protest.

The worldwide anger resulting from  the killing in police custody of George Floyd has so far been very supportive of the Black Lives Matter and anti racist causes.  In the UK it reached its apex in the toppling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol.

A reappraisal of the teaching of history, the role of colonisation and empire and the continued of discrimination against minority ethnic groups in the UK and elsewhere are all now now firmly on the agenda.

We must now move on, not by forgetting about it and turning to whatever next catches the public imagination, but by keeping it on the agenda.  

Among other things we must bombard the media, MPs, councillors and other opinion formers with questions related to the issue.  

What steps are being taken to reduce racism in our police force, why are  BAME people over-represented in our prisons but under-represented  in the top professions, subject to proportionally more "stop and secrecy", than other groups,what progress is being made on the reform of the history curriculum etc?

Above all,how can our Home Office continue to justify its cruel and inhumane "hostile environment " policy.

We must not let the momentum created by Mr Floyd's killing run into the sands, as has happens so often before.

The danger is that further demonstrations  today, particularly if there is violence of vandalism, will allow the right wing to turn the debate from one of racism, where they are on the defensive, to one of law and order, on which public opinion will be on their side.

So no more statue toppling, please.  As argued  in the previous post, where it doesn't already exist we need a democratic way of settling who should be memorialised  by peaceful discussion, which will have the welcome bonus of being highly educational.

Tuesday 9 June 2020

Embarrassing statues

Although I studied a little bit of history at tertiary level, and have taught it from time to time, I hadn't heard of Edward Colston until this weekend.  I've known since childhood of course that William Wilberforce of Hull, and therefore a Yorkshireman,  led the movement to abolish the slave trade.  

I've also known since childhood that:

"In fourteen hundred and ninety-two
 Columbus sailed the ocean blue" 

and so "discovered" America. I've only realised this weekend, by coincidence and from the book I am reading at the moment,* that he too was a slaver.  I presume there are  statues to him in Genoa, and probably in the Americas too.

So one of the lessons of the weekend is that we need a thorough revision of our school history syllabuses to include at least some of the "bad " bits as well as the "good" bits.

This is easier said than done.

 There's a lot of history and no-one's lifetime is long enough to get a grip on all of it.

A few years ago a Conservative politician (I think it was Sir Keith Joseph, not  a Yorkshireman but parachuted into a Leeds constituency) argued that we should cut out the "clutter" from the history syllabuses and just teach the important bits.  

He then went on to cite  such as (I generalise from memory here) the battles of Hastings, Bosworth, Trafalgar and Waterloo, Henry VIII and his wives and the shenanigans of various other monarchs, much  of which many social historians regarded as clutter, crowding out the time to be spent on how ordinary people actually lived and struggled  to improve their conditions.

For the "bad" bits of the UK's more recent  history I offer for consideration the Irish  Potato Famine and the Opium Wars with China, and as questionable, management of Indian independence.

As to statues of people considered great in their time but whose activities are now regarded as unaceptable, the former satellite countries of the Soviet Union have some experience.  I believe some designate an area  as a history park  and transfer such statues and other memorials there.  

We could have several of these in the UK, and local people could  debate what should and shouldn't be moved there. This should generate lively discussion contrasting the "good " things  the local eminence did with the methods used to achieve them.  Once a decision has been made there should be no further debate for 20 years. A democratic outlet such as this for people's feelings would avoid the need for vandalism.  

Once moved to the "park" information boards could be erected near the statue with the pros and cons of the person's life.  These would become an invaluable resource for the education of both young and old.

*  Human Kind, Rutger Bregman, p 94

Friday 5 June 2020

Recovery: Germany shows the way.

The German government has shed its reputation for excessive monetary caution and announced what the Guardian reveals as a "€130bn boost for [the German] economy."

Highlights include:
  • temporary cut in VAT from 19% to 16%
  • €300 one-off payment for every child in Germany
  • €50bn  to address climate change
  • €25bn loan support for small firms
  • €10bn for municipalities struggling with lower tax receipts.
The cut in VAT recalls Alistair Darling's cut of the UK's VAT from 17.5% to 15% as part of his package to help us recover form the  2008 financial crash.  The package was successful and the economy was actually growing again when the Labour Party lost office in 2010.  George Osborne's first budget of 2010 knocked the growth on the head by, among other things, raising the VAT to 20%, at which level it remains today

I'm not so sure that helicopter money of €300 per child is the bast way of holding up demand and helping the poorest, but it shows the right spirit.  I would think that increasing all social security benefits, including child allowances for every child and not just  the first two, would be more effective on both counts.  If such increased were universal they could be taxed back from the comfortably off.

Support to address climate change and small businesses are obvious priorities for all developed economies.  I hope the (extra?) €10bn for municipality is money for they can spend on locally determined priorities, rather than on the instructions of their central  government.
Of course, we are not yet aware of the small print  that many or may not surround these measures. but they are certainly moves in the right direction.

Our own government has so far  been  prompt and  generous with emergency survival money, although there are criticisms that much has been advanced without conditions which would have encouraged recipients to adapt to an inevitably different future.  

For example, whey have the airlines been given help with out any requirement  to reduce their carbon footprint, or as suggested in an earlier post, do downsize considerably?  And why aren't firms  with profits destined for tax havens cajoled into keeping them in the UK and paying their share of the civil and physical infrastructures which enable them to make those profits.

We do not yet know what Rishi Sunak's plans are for our long term post-pandemic (and post Brexit?) recovery are, but he would do well to study Germany's lead and the criticism as well as the praise he has received for his prompt survival measures